MIT start-up Terrafugia says they’re “roadable aircraft,” but everyone else just calls them flying cars. That’s the power of the Jetsons and its contemporaries, creating a conceptual framework that can both drive and shackle technology innovators. It might be a bit of a misnomer to call Terrafugia a “start-up” however, since the private aviation company has been collecting capital and working on products for more than seven years now. It’s collected about $ 10 million in capital from investors and defense contracts, but this year’s EAA AirVenture show was the first time the company attempted to show its flagship product in full, and pass the all-important test of approval by potential buyers — and it did so with flying (and driving) colors.
The product on display was the Transition, a winged 2-seater aircraft that can fold up to become a road-safe automobile. It’s probably not the most luxurious of drives, a long, oddly shaped thing with a high center of gravity, but after acquiring a number of weight and materials exemptions from the FAA and Federal Motor Vehicle association it is road-legal. What makes the Transition so exciting is the fact that it runs on regular, unleaded gasoline, the sort available from any commercial pump. Many “flying car” designs are really just “tiny jets.” The use of regular fuel means that the Transition could be reasonable for use on a regular basis.
Terrafugia showed off the Transition’s abilities as an aircraft last year, but this is the first we’ve been able to observe its full range of locomotion. First it drives, then it flies, then it drives again. It needs just 30 meters (100 feet) of runway space to take off, and less to land, and only about 30 seconds to extend or retract the wings. This makes it credible for use by the merely pretty-rich, as opposed to the insanely rich; though the car itself could cost half a million dollars or more (a third prototype is projected to cost about $ 280,000 to build), at least you won’t need a commercial runway just to use it. You will need a pilot’s license though, and at least 20 hours in the air, but for the price of lessons and a high-end sports car you could become utterly immune to the modern American traffic jam.
Though there’s no word on the size of the tank, a single fill-up can take you an impressive distance — with a cruising air speed of 107 miles per hour, it can travel almost 500 miles before having to set down to refuel. On the road it can reach a surprisingly speedy 70 miles per hour, though its range in unknown. It’s presumably much less efficient while earthbound, and Terrafugia itself says that it foresees the Transition spending no more than 15% of its time in that mode.
It’s worth noting that the Transition can also run on avgas, a leaded aircraft fuel that has a significantly greater environmental impact than conventional automobile gasoline. I wonder about the Transition’s ability to pass current automobile emissions standards in general actually, though if it eliminates time spend idling in traffic that could easily be offset in the long run.
The Transition is set for a hopeful release in 2016, though that target has been moved back several times already. This demonstration proves they are making progress, however, and it’s becoming more difficult to doubt that it will see the light of day, however late. They’ve already received pre-orders that will total several times their total amount of investment capital (upon delivery) so it’s unlikely they’ll run out of steam now. It seems the major remaining hurdle is manufacturing and the logistics of mass production — hardly a small barrier for a flying car, but nevertheless a surmountable one.
Terrafugia has a more traditional flying car concept upcoming, called the TF-X. Their engineers have been mostly done with the Transition for some time and have dreamed up a huge leap forward from even that hypothetical product. A hybrid-electric tilt-rotor aircraft with vertical takeoff abilities, it would truly be the platonic ideal of a flying car. Read more about it via the link below.